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What is an internet dongle?

Looking for cheap broadband? Compare prices from top providers and get a great deal

Internet dongles can provide a wireless, portable internet connection when traditional wifi is not available. Usually in the form of a USB device, dongles connect to a 3G, 4G or 5G mobile network and the reliability of its connection will depend on the mobile data speed in your area. This guide will explain how dongles work and how you can get the best broadband deal on a mobile dongle. 

What is a broadband dongle?

A broadband dongle provides internet from a mobile network. Rather than connecting your home with wifi using copper or fibre optic cables, the dongle connects to mobile data, similarly to how your phone does when you use 3G, 4G or 5G to access the internet. Because it’s wireless and can be used anywhere, it’s ideal for people who travel a lot, and would rather not rely on open, less secure wifi networks in public places. However, average download speeds will almost always be less than what can be promised by a fibre broadband package, so it won’t be able to support high-data activities such as online gaming.

How does an internet dongle work?

Similarly to mobile broadband, an internet dongle works by connecting to a mobile network, rather than a wired broadband connection. Dongles are usually USB sticks that plug into your laptop or computer, providing you with internet from the mobile network provider. The quality of connection you’ll get will depend on whether the provider offers 4G or 5G dongle deals, and this will also depend on what mobile data speeds you can access where you live.

It’s important to note that mobile broadband plans often cover dongle deals, but these providers also offer mobile broadband via mobile routers or portable hotspots, which can connect to several devices, whereas a dongle can only provide internet to one device at a time.

Do I need an internet dongle?

Some people that might need an internet dongle include those who can’t access very good broadband in their area. The best way to check what speeds you’re getting is by conducting a broadband speed test – if you find that your download speeds aren’t fast enough for a strong connection but you know you can access 5G or very good 4G, a dongle or mobile hotspot might be for you.

Another reason someone might need a dongle is if they travel a lot, for example for work. While it is possible to use open wifi networks in public places, these aren’t secure, so if you are often working in public places away from home and want a reliable and private connection, a dongle is a good investment.

Which providers offer broadband dongle deals?

O2

O2 offers an Alcatel 4G Dongle as part of its mobile broadband deals. You can build your own plan, or choose one of the pre-built dongle plans, which include either 5GB, 40GB, 150GB or unlimited data allowance, from just £12 per month. Download speeds are up to 150Mbps and upload speeds are up to 50Mbps.

Vodafone

Vodafone is another broadband provider that offers dongle deals with its K5161z USB dongle. Plans are available on a rolling monthly basis – for £13 per month with 4GB of data, or £33 per month for unlimited data – or 12- and 24-month contracts. If you opt for a 24-month contract, you can enjoy unlimited data allowance for £26 per month, but there are other data options, such as 30GB.

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The first thing to consider when comparing dongle deals is what kind of mobile data is available in your area, if you are planning to use the dongle at home. Some providers advertise the average download speeds available, while others just state that the dongle uses the 4G network. The next thing to consider is price, which does tend to be more reasonable than wired wifi deals. If you are opting for a deal that doesn’t offer unlimited data each month, think about how much data you will realistically use with your dongle to ensure you don’t run out.

What are the benefits of a broadband dongle deal?

  • With more and more areas now able to access 5G, mobile broadband and dongles now offer an alternative to wifi broadband, and can provide a similarly stable connection
  • It’s completely portable and wireless, so it’s very easy to set up
  • Dongles are ideal for people who travel a lot and want to take a private internet connection with them
  • Dongle deals are often cheaper than fibre or full fibre broadband deals, and there’s very rarely a setup cost involved, as there is nothing to install
  • Some providers offer rolling monthly or no-contract broadband deals, which is well-suited to people who don’t want to get stuck in a long contract 

What are the downsides of an internet dongle?

  • As it has to be plugged in to the device, a dongle can only provide internet to one device at a time
  • While 5G means that dongle speeds can be very good, they still won’t be as fast or reliable as the best fibre or full fibre wifi connections
  • If you live in a more remote area that doesn’t have 4G or 5G yet, you won’t be able to enjoy a good connection with a dongle at home
  • Dongle speeds often won’t be fast enough to perform high-data activities such as gaming or streaming/downloading large files 

What alternatives to internet dongles can I use?

Mifi or mobile router

A mobile router (or ‘mifi’) will suit households with multiple users needing broadband access. Unlike SIMs and dongles, they’re not portable and require a wall socket connection. Similar to standard routers, they use a SIM card for their connection, not fiber optic cables or phone lines.

Mobile broadband SIM cards

Some providers offer dedicated mobile broadband SIMs usable in phones, laptops, and tablets. These differ from conventional mobile SIMs, as they typically lack SMS or call features.

Mobile hotspots

Any mobile device with a good 4G or 5G connection, such as your phone, can be used to create a private wifi connection, which can provide internet to several devices at once but will use a fair amount of your data allowance.

Internet dongle FAQs

Unlike with traditional broadband deals, where unlimited downloads are now pretty much the norm, there tends to be a limit on the downloads you can access with a dongle. Some providers, however, do offer unlimited downloads with dongles, including Vodafone, though these tend to be the most expensive plans.

In most cases, the connection you can get with a dongle won’t be quite as good as a wired broadband connection. Lots of wired broadband with very fast average download speeds are more than reliable enough to complete high-data activities such as ultra-HD streaming, downloading and internet gaming. Plus, wired broadband can provide this service to several different devices at once, whereas a dongle is only meant to be plugged into one device at a time.

Having said this, if you do need a connection that’s completely portable, and you’re in an area that can access fast mobile data, it’s a good alternative that gives you a lot of flexibility.

While some providers offer monthly rolling airtime plans, like O2, there will usually be a device plan to pay for too, which won’t be rolling. Vodafone does offer 30-day dongle plans, or no-contract broadband for a dongle, but do keep in mind that the price may sometimes increase from one month to the next, due to country-wide price hikes caused by inflation.

Hannah Holway circle

Hannah Holway

Home Tech Writer

Hannah Holway is a writer with eight years of experience in writing and editing across several different categories. As a home tech expert at Independent Advisor, Hannah researches, tests and writes about broadband services and home security gadgets.

She started her career as a freelance film and culture journalist, and has written for editorial platforms such as Wonderland and Hero magazine, as well as interviewing directors, actors and musical artists. While at Wonderland, she was also Social Media Editor for the brand and Contributing Editor for the publication’s sister print titles.

In 2020 she joined New York Magazine’s The Strategist UK, reporting on evolving shopping trends and writing about everything from period pants and pens to books and the next ‘status’ candle. She then used her consumer trends knowledge and expertise in her role as Shopping Writer for Woman and Home Digital, where she oversaw a range of shopping content, writing product reviews and other features in the realm of health and fitness, beauty, fashion and homes.

Hannah has also had her academic work published in journals and presented at conferences, and she has a BA and MA in Film Studies.